By Mackenzie Mays
Students at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind left class in protest on Monday to fight a new policy that requires on-campus caretakers to obtain degrees, and could ultimately push out school employees who have worked closely with the students for years.
In March, the state Board of Education approved a plan that will require the school’s 35 “dorm parents” – caretakers who provide basic assistance for deaf and blind students who live on campus outside of instruction time – to get associate degrees in child development by 2018 in order to keep their jobs.
State officials have said the plan is not necessarily to fire the current employees, and that program courses will be provided on campus if they choose to get the degree, but WVSDB Superintendent Lynn Boyer has said there is no guarantee they will keep their jobs.
While caretakers’ salaries could increase by as much as $10,000 after receiving the degree, more than 500 people have already signed a petition to put an end to the new rule.
On Monday, Archele Hundley-Griffith supported her childrens’ decision to picket outside the Romney-based school in protest of the policy.
Griffith, of Sissonville, has a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old who have attended the WVSDB – the state’s only residential school designated for deaf and blind students – most of their lives.
Griffith said because the employees’ jobs are as caretakers – not teachers – she does not believe a degree is necessary, especially for people who have served in the position for 20 years or more.
“The kids are just devastated. These are their families up there because we can’t be there. These are their surrogate parents that have been taking care of them since kindergarten,” Griffith said. “When my son fell on the playground when he was in elementary school, a dorm mom sat by his bedside and held his hand and called me and cried because it upset her.”
“The kids are completely upset about it and they have a right to be heard,” she said.
Debbie Lupton, of Romney, took to the petition’s website on Change.org to voice her concerns about the policy.
“There is absolutely no reason why these employees should have to take another math or English class in order to care for children in a ‘home-like’ setting,” Lupton said. “These individuals are not required to be licensed teachers. Yes they provide their services in a school campus setting; however it is not within the classroom setting... You can’t teach caring through college courses.”
Gayle Manchin said through an attorney on Monday that the Board of Education stands by its decision, and that she hopes WVSDB students will continue to be cared for by the same people they’ve established long-standing relationships with.
“The West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind is committed to creating a comprehensive educational program for its residential students. Learning does not end when the conventional school day ends. WVSDB employees are entrusted not only with student care, but also with providing students the essential tools to transition into post-education society. In order to afford WVSDB students an exceptional education, the [West Virginia Board of Education] approved Superintendent Boyer’s request for child care workers to obtain associate degrees,” Manchin said. “Increasing staff education enhances student opportunity, and the WVBE supports this initiative.”
Boyer did not return calls by press time.